Christian bakers who refused to make pro-gay marriage cake lose appeal
Published 25/10/2016 | 02:30
the owners of a bakery who were found to have breached equality laws by refusing to make a pro-gay marriage cake have lost their appeal case.
In a landmark verdict, the Court of Appeal in Belfast found the bakery was not allowed under law to provide a service only to people who agreed with their religious beliefs.
The judges ruled the McArthur family did directly discriminate against a customer due to his sexuality.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said: "What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation."
Ashers Baking Company, run by the McArthurs, declined an order placed by Gareth Lee at its Belfast city centre shop in May 2014.
The gay rights activist had requested a cake depicting Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie below the motto 'Support Gay Marriage' for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia.
Bosses at the bakery refunded his money because the message went against their Christian faith.
The family insists their problem was with the cake and not the customer.
But Mr Lee sued, claiming he was left feeling like a lesser person. Last year, Belfast County Court held that the bakery had unlawfully discriminated against him on grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief or political opinion.
The firm was also ordered to pay £500 (€561) compensation to Mr Lee, whose legal action was backed by the Equality Commission.
But during a four-day hearing at the Court of Appeal, lawyers for the McArthurs argued it would have been sinful for them to complete the order. Counsel for the family claimed it was wrong to force them to choose between operating a business or adhering to their faith.
Rejecting allegations that the bakery subjected Mr Lee to direct discrimination, he insisted the refusal was solely due to conscience and nothing to do with the customer or his political opinion.
Anyone else asking for the same cake would have received the same response due to the family's religious beliefs, the court heard.
Northern Ireland's top law officer, Attorney General John Larkin QC, backed the McArthurs' case by contending that forcing them to complete the order could amount to cruelty.
Mr Larkin submitted it was wrong to force them to express a political view in conflict with their faith.
Counsel representing the Equality Commission argued that the family's entitlement to express religious beliefs should not "trump" Mr Lee's rights.
Mr Lee and the McArthur family were present in a packed courtroom for the ruling.
The Lord Chief Justice said the reason the order was cancelled was that the appellants would not provide a cake with a message endorsing a right to marry for those of a particular sexual orientation.
"This was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community," he added.
"Accordingly this was direct discrimination."